Surveyors of the world unite – around a rights-based approach

by Rhodri C. Williams

Many thanks to Erik Petersson at Swede Survey for pointing out some new publications by the International Federation of Surveyors (FIG) that can be downloaded on their reports page. The page itself makes for an interesting browse.

Some of the listed texts are somewhat introspective documents that one imagines would fire the imagination of only a few select initiates outside the circle of licensed surveyors (“Hydrography in Ports and Harbours” anyone?). However, FIG began engaging with sustainable development issues as early as 1991 and has gone on to cover topics as various and broadly relevant as women’s access to land (2001), disaster risk ‘management’ (2006), informal settlement upgrading (2008), and land governance in support of the MDGs (2009).

This year has already seen a raft of new reports including ones on mega-cities, the history of surveying (sounds tame until one considers the motivations people might have to go off and measure other people’s land), the ‘Social Tenure Domain Model’ (a pro-poor land tool), and, perhaps most notably, the ‘Hanoi Declaration’ on land acquisition in developing countries.

The Hanoi Declaration is a very interesting document that sprang from the seventh FIG regional conference last October in the Vietnamese capital. At this meeting, it was noted that states in the region “require urgent action especially in terms of reinforcing methods for land acquisition in fast growing urban areas in developing economies.” As previously indicated in this blog, Cambodia represents one such case, with urban forced evictions now so endemic and politicized that when the World Bank pushed to extend its Land Management and Administration Project (LMAP) to urban areas, the Cambodian government withdrew its support. As the Bank rather diplomatically put it in a September 2009 press release:

[A previously undertaken] review found that LMAP’s successes in land titling in rural areas have not been matched in urban areas where land disputes are on the rise. This was due in part to delays or lack of implementation of some project activities. While originally designed as a multi-pronged approach to addressing a range of land issues, LMAP focused on areas where it could be most successful: titling rural land and building the capacity of the land administration to register and title land and implement policy.

We have shared the findings of the review with the Government but could not come to agreement on whether LMAP’s social and environmental safeguards should apply in some of the disputed urban areas. For the World Bank, the implementation of these safeguard policies is critical. However, we are encouraged by the Government’s statement of its commitment to continuing reforms in the land sector and working towards an improved policy and legal framework for resettlement that reflects their commitment to international treaties.

The result was the termination of an otherwise well-seen and well-established program that had provided title to over a million rural properties. I am hoping to encourage colleagues who have worked recently in Cambodia to guest blog on this incident and the ensuing World Bank Inspection Panel proceedings related to the LMAP in the coming weeks. However, one of the lessons that appears most obvious is the need to promote urban land acquisition policies and practices that are not only in need with the Bank’s own resettlement guidelines but also applicable human rights standards. As indicated in a recent report by COHRE and a number of partner organizations, both Cambodian practice and the World Bank response had fallen short in a number of regards.

It is therefore reassuring to see that the FIG’s Hanoi Declaration breaks with the tendency in South-East Asia (and beyond) to perpetuate a questionable dichotomy between pro-poor development standards and human rights. Both the text and the report are in refreshingly straightforward contrast to the World Bank statement cited above, which makes labored indirect reference to human rights standards (surely the reference to “commitment to international treaties” are not meant to invoke widget standardization or postal union), but cannot bring itself to utter the words. By contrast, the FIG gives human rights their due:

The publication should be seen as an a tool to support politicians, executive managers, decision makers and professional organisations in their efforts to deal with land acquisition in a fair way, based on legal standards, full compensation, and acknowledgement of human rights. Land acquisition should secure that adequate development opportunities are available while land rights and social sustainability are fully protected throughout the process.

The Declaration itself is sufficiently concise to be reprinted in full and not only incorporates many safeguards supported in both human rights and development standards (e.g. related to process and compensation) but also directly invokes human rights and highlights the problem of informality and the needs of vulnerable groups. Specifically the FIG asks that states:

– Provide consistent, transparent and efficient legislation and procedures for acquisition through both voluntary and compulsory means and at low transaction costs.
– Provide clear and transparent rules for inclusion of the parties involved and for determination of adequate compensation which ensures that those displaced are able to re-establish their lives and livelihoods in a proper manner.
– Ensure that good governance principles are applied for conducting the processes of land acquisition whether they are based on compulsory means or voluntary agreements. Processes must be efficient, fair and legitimate.
– Ensure that all rights are addressed including informal rights and human rights especially the rights of the poor and vulnerable.

The report on the Declaration goes on to separately discuss human rights standards in the area of compulsory land acquisition, noting that they are “still under construction” but setting out some key principles (pages 8-9). This section is a bit thin and some of the principles disputable. For instance, while the report asserts that human rights standards tend to require compensation at ‘full replacement cost’, this would not always be borne out, for instance in the jurisprudence of the European Court of Human Rights which tends to only require a reasonable relationship between compensation levels and market value. The section does not refer to specific rules or standards and although the Kothari principles on development-based evictions are referenced later in the text, one is left with the impression that reference to human rights in the report – while significant in principle – remained something of an afterthought in practice.

This said, I should not cavil. The Hanoi Declaration itself adds to the growing list of sensible, pro-poor and, crucially, rights-based standards meant to protect those with high dependence on and low recognized tenure to their homes. The surveyors of FIG have broken new ground (and arguably both some regional and professional taboos) by introducing human rights in a development meeting in South-East Asia. If meaningful change is to be achieved, it is now incumbent on human rights advocates to meet their efforts halfway.

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